Friday, September 13, 2013

Same Same But Different

Same same but different. It's a phrase many people who've travelled through southeast Asia will be instantly familiar with, where the pidgin English of the local touts isn't nuanced enough to incorporate the word "similar". The phrase is equally applicable for travels in Hispanophone America. The common language and shared colonial history unites the 18 countries and almost 400 million people. Yet despite the very obvious similarities, there are many differences, both profound and frivolous. The profound are the subject of many a book (I'm guessing) and scholarly essays. I, instead, would like to take a closer look at the frivolous and arbitrary.

Although maize is the basis of much Latin American cuisine from Bolivia all the way up through to Mexico the way it is prepared varies significantly. As you get closer to Mexico the slap slapping sound of tortillas being moulded becomes ever more ubiquitous.

The most obvious is the language, which not only unites, but divides as well. From the love-it-or-hate-it accent of Argentina (I personally loathe it), the gattling gun of Cuban, to the urban slang of Mexico City´s chilangos. And it isn't just a case of different accents, but of completely different vocabularies. More so it seems to me than among the standard Englishes of the anglophone world. Very often a word used to describe a certain thing has changed multiple times as I've travelled vaguely northwards or the meanings of words can change drastically. Mate (as in friend) can be anything from pana in Colombia, marisco in parts of Venezuela, mahe in Costa Rica or mai in Nicaragua. Playa in most of the Spanish speaking world means beach, but in Bolivia it's a parking lot (perhaps because they lost their coast to Chile and want to make up for it). Coger may mean "to take" (as in to take the bus) in Colombia, but if you try to coger the bus in Mexico you might get arrested by the police for public indecency.

When coordinating with my host in San Salvador about how to meet up I told him I would call him upon arriving in town. Although I had no local number of my own (I didn't think it worthwhile for a stay of less than a week) I wasn't worried about finding a phone to call him from. In Colombia, Venezuela and Bolivia there are whole swathes of society that earn their living by providing a cheap, streetside, mobile phone service. Costa Rica and Guatemala have extensive phonebooth networks. Making a call is never a problem. Not so in El Salvador where publicly available phones do not exist. Anywhere. Either you own a mobile or you don't, and if you want to make a phone call you had better be among the former. It took me almost half an hour of asking around, pleading, cajoling and wheedling before a kindly passer-by took pity on me and lent me their phone for a minute.

A viable career move in Colombia ' selling minutes on the street. Not in El Salvador though where, for reasons that remain obscure to me, the concept of public payphones is taboo.

The pace of life also varies markedly from country to country. I remember when I first arrived in Argentina (back in 2004) in the town of Salta. It wasn't until 9pm that I had pitched my tent and made my way to the town centre. Unfortunately I was waylaid by a strategically-placed internet cafe and didn't reemerge until a couple of hours later (sadly I can't even blame Facebook as I wasn't on it at the time), more than a little worried that I might not find somewhere to procure myself a meal. I soon found a small diner where they were cleaning the floor and moving tables around. I asked if they were still serving, to which I got a strange look and a yes. Oblivious I frantically ordered the first thing on the menu and let out a sigh of relief. As I was being served my burger a lady and her two pre-teen sons entered the diner and I finally realised that I wasn't the last, but actually the first, customer of the evening. The evening in Argentina doesn't start until 11pm. Whereas yesterday at 7:30pm I was trying to catch a bus back to my host's flat in Guatemala City (Guate to its friends). In vain. It may be the capital city with a population in excess of a million, but the only way you're going to get around at that apparently ungodly hour is with your own car or by taxi. And the same goes for interurban transport from Nicaragua up through to Guatemala: if you're not on a bus by 4pm then you're not going anywhere that day.

Latin America may, at first glance, seem like an unchallenging place to travel, with its apparent uniformity of language and history, but there are plenty of little oddities just waiting to trip you up. Which is what makes it fun.

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